“Deeply alarming” cuts to classical music by Arts Council England and the BBC are cutting away “at the flesh of our culture”, Sir Simon Rattle, Britain’s best-known living conductor, has said.
In a speech at the Barbican on Sunday, Rattle, the outgoing music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, said the last few months “have been devastating” for the sector.
He added: “After the Arts Council’s swingeing cuts in November, which have affected all of us and left some extraordinary groups fighting for their lives, we were all stopped in our tracks by the proposed vandalism by the BBC, of which the closure of the BBC Singers was only the tip of the iceberg.
“When the two largest supporters of classical music in this country cut away at the flesh of our culture in this way, it means that the direction of travel has become deeply alarming. It’s clear we are facing a long-term fight for existence and we cannot just quietly acquiesce to the dismantling or dismembering of so many important companies.”
Last year, ACE announced it was slashing £50m a year from arts organisations in London in its 2023-26 settlement to fulfil a government instruction to divert money away from the capital as part of the levelling up programme. A number of UK arts organisations were removed entirely from its national portfolio, including the English National Opera, Donmar Warehouse and Oldham Coliseum.
The BBC, meanwhile, recently changed course on its proposed 20% cuts to its English orchestras, as well as its decision to scrap the BBC Singers chamber choir, after widespread pressure from musicians, the public and politicians. Many of the corporation’s divisions have faced cuts recently after the government’s licence fee freeze.
“There is nobody here tonight, even musicians, who do not recognise the enormous challenges faced by the world at present and in this country in particular, where people are struggling even to feed and heat themselves,” Rattle said.
“But none of this is a force majeure. It is rooted in political choices. And we do have to ask ourselves, when we are hopefully on the other side of this, what kind of country we want to live in?”
He said musicians had no choice but to become masters of doing more with less. But with support constantly being cut, there was no more room to manoeuvre and organisations would inevitably fail. As other political decisions affect music in schools and colleges, the “vital organic pipeline” would also start to run dry, he said.
“We understand that this is a time of belt-tightening and that change is inevitable. We could help, if we were ever asked or consulted: classical music is still a very fragile, interconnected ecosystem, and we know about adapting it without damaging any of the vital functions along the way,” Rattle said.
“This is frankly not true of many of the people who are currently making decisions without any coherent plan. Of course, they are also in a difficult situation, as the government has slashed their financial possibilities – political choice. But there’s a kind of dishonesty at the heart of many of the decisions.”
Anyone with knowledge of how an orchestra functions “will know you can’t reduce the membership by 20% by natural wastage or in any other means – it is then no longer an orchestra and also all the years of building up a team expertise have gone out of the window,” he said.
“And by the way, without an orchestra or chorus you no longer have an opera company – these are not things that can just be reassembled later, or bought in from Ikea.”
Rattle is to leave the LSO this year to become chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich – a decision he previously said was down to “entirely personal” reasons. After this year, Rattle will take up the lifetime role as the LSO’s conductor emeritus, following a trajectory taken by the late André Previn.
The conductor was the public face of ambitious plans to build a £288m concert hall in London, which were later scrapped by the City of London Corporation.
He said: “We are in a fight, and we need to ensure that classical music remains part of the beating heart of our country – of our country and of our culture.”